US utilities prepare for DOE delays

30 June 1999

In 1982, United States utilities signed a contract that obligated the Department of Energy (DOE) to begin taking spent fuel from them as of 31 January 1998. As has been clearly established, DOE has not met this obligation and utilities are devising plans to prepare for what they perceive as the worst-case scenario.

As early as the mid-to-late 1980s, utilities anticipated DOE’s problems. They began to employ several strategies to cope with the situation, beginning with reracking spent fuel pools with progressively higher density racks; later use of dry spent fuel storage in storage-only metal casks; still later dry spent fuel storage in canister-based storage-only systems; and, most recently, dry storage in dual-purpose metal casks and dry storage in dual-purpose canister-based systems.

The reracking alternative has some advantages over the dry storage method. Reracking is usually less costly than dry storage; therefore, it offers an economic advantage. Utilities, however, do not always make decisions based solely on economics. More often than not, the decision-making process includes a component of licensing or political risk, which can often be minimised by reracking. As long as the number of cells in the racks will be equal to or less than the licensed capacity of the spent fuel pool, there is no requirement to hold hearings that may jeopardise the operating licence in the worst case or significantly delay the project. Utilities are loath to subject the plant to licensing review, unless there is no alternative.

As a matter of fact, reracking was so effective that most US utilities have already reracked as much as possible, leading to the current popularity of dry spent fuel storage.

There is a similar opportunity to avoid licensing uncertainty with respect to dry storage. A utility may use such a cask with a general storage licence so long as the fuel being stored is within the specifications of the cask licence. In this case, the utility is obligated to notify the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of its intent at least 60 days prior to loading the cask. As with the reracking option, use of a cask with a general licence avoids the risks associated with hearings and opportunities for intervention.

These are the “easy” spent fuel management solutions, although some might say “easy” is hardly the right word to describe the efforts required to get an interim storage facility up and running. They are “easy” solutions only insofar as they avoid the politics of intervention and delay. The underlying problem facing virtually all spent fuel management solutions is politics.

In spite of the difficulty related to licensing, there are 10 Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations (ISFSI) operating at reactor sites in the US at this time and several more are in various stages of licensing. The best known ISFSI is at Virginia Power’s Surry station. This facility was licensed to operate in 1987. There are now 37 casks in storage at Surry and more are placed in the ISFSI each year.

In the ideal world, dry on-site spent fuel storage would not be necessary. Eliminating the need for on-site dry storage is dependent on DOE beginning to take fuel. DOE’s own estimate is that it will not be ready to accept fuel for several more years. Therefore, it has become obvious to many utilities that they must control their own destiny and investigate as many alternative storage strategies as possible.


Among the alternatives being considered are private interim spent fuel storage operations. Two separate organisations are investigating the possibility of storing spent fuel. One is on an Indian reservation in Utah and the other on privately owned land in Wyoming. There is still some talk of a government operation for interim storage; however, the concept is very unpopular in the Clinton Administration. As a matter of fact, each time the concept is broached in the US Congress, the President indicates that if the bill is passed, he will veto it.

This leaves the utilities with little choice. Their business is to generate electricity not to store spent fuel. They would prefer to send the spent fuel off-site and are willing to pay a third party to take it to a central interim storage facility.

The two facilities being developed in the United States at this time are the Private Spent Fuel Storage (PSFS) and the Owl Creek Energy Project (Owl Creek). These projects have some similarities and some differences. Both projects are requesting licences from the NRC that would permit them to store up to 40,000 t of uranium at the respective sites. There is a reason that the capacities of the projects are less than the approximately 80,000 t that will be discharged from US reactors. If a private facility requests a licence to store 80,000 t of spent fuel, antinuclear interests will immediately claim that the facility will become a de facto repository. The political damage from that type of claim would be difficult to overcome regardless of a project’s technical merits.

PSFS is proposed for the Goshute Indian reservation in Utah, while Owl Creek is proposed on privately owned land in Wyoming. The governor of Utah is adamantly opposed to the PSFS initiative and has threatened to isolate the proposed site from transport access. On the other hand, the state of Wyoming has a process in place that is meant to review proposals such as Owl Creek.

The significant difference here is that Utah is opposing PSFS at every opportunity while Wyoming expects to be compensated for the efforts involved in reviewing the application for an operating licence. While Wyoming has a formal review process established, this does not imply that the review process is biased in one way or another. The project must stand on its own merits with respect to the environment and public safety.

There are several other factors unique to the Owl Creek effort. The political environment in Wyoming is receptive to economic development. The legislature expects a revenue shortfall in the 2001-2003 period and has appointed a committee to investigate alternative sources of revenue for the state. While most states would recoil at the thought of a “nuclear” facility within their boundaries, 16 of Wyoming’s 23 counties have hosted uranium mining operations. Uranium has been one of Wyoming’s most important sources of mineral revenue in the past so the state is familiar with nuclear-related matters.

From the technical side, a Central Interim Storage Facility (CISF) looks just like an ISFSI. The main difference is that it is larger. The Surry ISFSI, shown here, occupies just 15 acres of land on the Surry site in Gravel Neck, Virginia. The Owl Creek land area (see map) encompasse 2700 acres. Owl Creek will not require all of that land to store 40,000 t; however, the available land does provide a substantial buffer between the CISF and non-Owl Creek property.

From an operations point of view, the main difference between an at-reactor ISFSI and a CISF is the transportation from the plant to the CISF. Here again, there is an opportunity for antinuclear opposition to a CISF. The opposition will focus on the transportation route and will marshal political activists to raise protests based on transportation through political jurisdictions sympathetic to the antinuclear position. While this tactic may attract some attention for road transport of spent fuel, it is not as effective where spent fuel is transported by rail.


Common to all of the above is the political factor. The nuclear industry has done an excellent job creating technologies to meet its ever-changing needs, but it has done a less than perfect job managing the politics of spent fuel. As stated earlier, the utilities are in the electricity business, not the spent fuel storage business. As a result, they are looking to other entities to provide spent fuel storage services and eliminate the need for on-site storage.

A company wishing to establish a CISF must satisfy the regulatory requirements of the federal, state and local governments. The regulations are formulated to protect the public, the environment, the workers and the fuel. They are based on well-known codes and standards and have been applied on a smaller scale to ISFSIs located at the nuclear plants. Establishing that a CISF is in compliance with the regulatory requirements may be time-consuming, but it can be done – just as compliance has been demonstrated for ISFSIs.

Although the regulatory process is based on sound engineering principles, there is often a difficult political process that must be addressed when bringing a CISF to operational status. This is the area that requires intimate knowledge of politics at all levels in order to make a project successful. Owl Creek has reversed the approach used by some other projects by putting the initial efforts into understanding the politics and local community, then creating a strategy to address them. Selecting Wyoming as the host state was a conscious decision based on the fact that there was a legal process in place to review projects such as Owl Creek.

With a state process in place, the next step was to establish political support at the county government level. Again, since so many counties in Wyoming were hosts to uranium mining operations, they were less likely to reject a spent fuel storage facility. It is also important to remember the expression, “all politics are local.” In order to build support at the higher levels, it is imperative to establish support at the local level. Explaining the project to local chambers of commerce and community organisations created significant local support for Owl Creek. This local support will be a critical success factor when the professional antinuclear groups focus on Owl Creek. Conveying the facts to the local community at the earliest stages of the project gives them the knowledge to sort through the information that will inevitably come to them from other sources in the future.

While the technical basis for a successful CISF is clearly established and well documented, there is no parallel for the political side of the issue – ie establishment of local community-based support. By focusing on the political side, Owl Creek has improved its chances of success. The old saying that, “the only guarantee is that there are no guarantees,” certainly applies to establishing a CISF. Anyone attempting to establish a CISF must pay close attention to both the technical and political issues. Ignoring or favouring one over the other is a sure path to failure.

It is time for the nuclear industry to put as much effort into political issues as it does into the technical issues. Doing so will significantly improve the chances for establishing CISFs and may well lead to reinvigorating the nuclear industry in general.

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